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Sourcing at Storage Unit Auctions

Learn secrets of the pros for finding items you can resell for profit.

TV shows like “Storage Wars” and “Auction Hunters” have captured the imaginations of millions of viewers. People seem to love watching resellers seek out gems among the seemingly forgotten contents of rented storage lockers, which are being auctioned off because of nonpayment.

We wondered what this sourcing experience was like, and decided to give it a try. We came away from the experience with a new understanding of how storage unit auctions work, several very interesting finds, some profits and an adventure that taught us you never know what you’ll uncover at these auctions.

Follow our sourcing venture on the Auctiva Blog, and read on below to learn a few tips we picked up about storage unit auctions, just in case the curiosity has gotten to you, too.

Find auctions in your area

A simple Google search for “locker auctions” and the name of your city or town will help you find out if these auctions take place in your area, and where. You can also call local storage facilities to see if they host these auctions, or if they know of other facilities that do.

That’s what we did, and we learned that Chico, the city where Auctiva is headquartered, has frequent storage locker auctions. The auctions take place when the people who rent a storage unit fail to pay rent for several months (two months in California; state laws may vary). This nonpayment gives the storage facility owner the legal right to sell the contents of a locker to recoup some of his or her losses.

These auctions can be a great sourcing opportunity for resellers. We saw units that contained golf clubs, snowboards, tools, vinyl records, books, clothes and furniture. However, there’s often plenty of junk and non-valuables mixed in, too: torn blankets, worn chairs and everyday household items, for example.

Set a budget before hand, so you don’t get caught up in the bidding excitement and spend a lot more than you anticipated

Develop a strategy

Once you know when and where the next auction will be held, you’ll need to do a little legwork. Call the facility holding the auction and ask:

  • how many units will be up for sale
  • if you need a resale license to attend
  • how much units typically go for, and
  • if you’ll be allowed to look inside lockers before bidding on them, or if it will be a “blind auction.”

Then ask yourself how much you are willing—and can afford—to spend, and set a budget.

This will prevent you from getting caught up in the bidding excitement, and spending a lot more than you anticipated. Once you have decided on your budget, head over to the bank and get that amount in cash. Many facilities won’t take plastic or checks. They only want cold, hard cash.

Don’t expect a goldmine every time

If you happen to win one of these auctions, you’ll win all the contents of the storage unit, with a few exceptions, such as vehicles, firearms and personal photos. (The auctioneer will give you this information before the bidding starts). That means you could walk away with a lot of inventory you can resell, or you could be left with a few prized winnings and a lot of throwaways. (Either way, it’s now your responsibility to empty the contents from the locker—we’ll discuss this in more detail below).

You should always keep this possibility in mind and have realistic expectations going into an auction. Don’t talk yourself into buying a storage unit just for the sake of it. As one seasoned locker bidder told us, many newbies attend auctions thinking they’re going to discover goldmines, and leave realizing how much work is involved in this type of venture.

Bring along the right supplies

Now that you’re in the right mindset, let’s focus on the supplies you’ll need.

  • A flashlight: If units are opened before the auction, bidders will be able to peer in, but you won’t be able to walk in or touch anything inside. Lockers will likely be stacked with boxes, furniture, lamps, clothing, etc., limiting what you can see from outside the doorway. That’s where your flashlight comes into play. It will help you get a better sense of what’s inside and what you’re bidding on. As you’re looking at items, use your flashlight to look for hints of value, like the word “fragile.”

  • A lock: A lot of veteran bidders at the first auction we attended brought these, and we soon realized why: If you do buy a locker, you’ll need to lock it after it’s officially yours so no one else can access it. We know what you’re thinking: Storage units usually come with locks. That’s true, but before each auction, the locks are broken to let bidders peer inside, so you’ll need to furnish your own lock. Most storage facilities have these for sale on site, but these will cost you more than if you bring your own.

  • Your smart phone: Web-enabled phones make it easy to quickly research the value of items you see inside a locker, so be sure to take your phone with you. Just be sure to put it on silent during the auctions. Bidders will get annoyed if your phone interrupts the action or prevents them from hearing the latest bid.

  • A truck and a friend: You may leave an auction without buying anything, but you should enter each auction prepared to haul away a locker full of items. A friend and a truck will make moving easier, and will give you another set of eyes to assess a locker’s potential value. Some storage facilities will let you to leave items in the locker you buy until the end of the business day. Others will let you rent a storage locker for a few days for a prorated rate. However, this isn’t always the case, so always be ready to move your items, on the spot.

  • Your favorite painting clothes: Clearing out a unit will be hard, grimy work. You’ll want to wear comfortable clothing that you’re not afraid to get dirty, or even ruin. Remember that units may not only be crammed with items, they could be filled with dust bunnies. We learned this with the first unit we bought. It was covered in layers of dust—and unfortunately, so was our professional attire by the time we left. So dress appropriately, and bring gloves and painters’ masks to avoid breathing in particles.

  • Boxes and garbage bags: Lockers may be filled with boxes, but these could be crushed, torn or falling apart, depending on how long they’ve been in storage, and how much care renters have taken, so it’s a good idea to bring your own. You can use these to move items and begin sorting through the keepers and the throwaways.

If the renter didn’t put much effort into how they stored their items, odds are they don’t care if things get ruined, and that’s not a sign of value

Look for that hidden gem

When you go to an auction, your goal should be to buy a locker that contains items of value that you can resell for at least enough to cover your cost—and hopefully, leave you with a tidy profit.

Lockers that contain sports equipment like snowboards, wet suits or golf clubs have the best potential to make you a profit. So do those with tools, gaming systems, vintage computers, furniture and antiques.

Lockers that are filled with torn blankets or paperwork and look neglected may not be as profitable. (Some signs of neglect include stacks of crushed boxes that are ready to topple over, or boxes of items that seem to have just been thrown in).

We say “may,” because you never know exactly what will be in a unit until you go through it, thoroughly. But if the renter didn’t seem to put much effort into how they stored their items, odds are they don’t care if things get ruined, and that’s not a sign of value.

Occasionally, a unit that appears to be filled with worthless items might surprise you. This happened with the first unit we bought. We’ll definitely come out ahead in the end. But again, don’t bid just to bid. Find at least one item in a locker that you could resell for more than the cost of the unit before you decide to bid.

As you’re considering the worth of the items you see, ask yourself how much time it would take to haul, sort, clean and sell what you see in the locker. Also consider the sizes of items and potential shipping costs.

Stick to your budget

Finally, at the auction, take a few minutes after peering inside each locker to set a bidding cap for each unit. Consider what you saw, what items could sell for, the condition of the goods, and the time it would take to empty the locker and prep products for resale. And stick to your cap. Though others may bid up the price, you’re the one who knows your business, and you know if a locker is worth your time and money. Remember, you’ll have to haul these items away, store them, clean them and unload them online or in your hometown. Not anyone else.

Want to know more about our sourcing adventure? Check out the Auctiva Blog to read about the good, the bad and the ugly. And check back here on Auctiva EDU for tips on sorting and reselling some of the more interesting finds from locker auctions.

About the author

Olga Munoz
Olga Munoz is editor of In addition to writing news and feature articles about e-commerce, selling trends, online marketing and other topics of interest to online sellers, Olga manages the site's social media efforts. A journalism graduate of Chico State, Olga says her favorite part of being a journalist is learning interesting facts that help put stories into perspective, attending industry events and meeting interesting people "that leave you smiling, even in tough situations." Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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